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The politics of Elysium: We're all in this together

The world is a ghetto.

That is, yes, the title of an old song by War. It is also the reality presented by "Elysium," the new film by director Neill Blomkamp. It posits a ruined Earth in the year 2154, overcome by overcrowding, disease and environmental and economic collapse. Los Angeles is a dusty brown shantytown where people live on top of one another like some favela in Rio.

Then the camera takes you up to the orbiting habitat to which the wealthy have decamped, Elysium. It's Latin for paradise, and that's what this is, assuming your idea of paradise is a McMansion with a manicured lawn the size of a city park where you live a life of vaguely sterile luxury.

Mr. Blomkamp has given us a tale perfect for these political times. It is an allegory of income disparity, a cautionary saga of what happens when more and more resources are concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

One of those resources is adequate health care. On Earth, if you get sick, you fill out a form and try not to die in the waiting room before the doctor gets around to you. On Elysium, they have this device that can instantly cure anything from lymphoma to radiation poisoning. Our hero, Max, afflicted with the latter and given just days to live, resolves to somehow make his way up there so that he can be healed.

The movie's political implications have not escaped the conservative punditocracy. Rush Limbaugh pronounced it "anti-capitalist, pro-socialism." But some in the liberal punditocracy have also been displeased. Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress scored the movie for failing to "speak truth to power" in its silence on the causes of the inequities it depicts.

There are elements of truth in both arguments. But the movie actually seems determined to make another point altogether, albeit one that probably flies under the radar because of its very simplicity: We're all in this thing together.

So the space station is not just a space station. It is the science-fiction equivalent of the gated community. Or of America as viewed from some Mexican hovel.

And Max is not just a guy with a gun who storms the space station. He is the man standing outside the gate, the poor woman fording the Rio Grande.

We have been conditioned by years of conservative dogma to view such people with scorn, as too stupid, too lazy or too lacking in foresight to rise above their circumstances -- "takers" to use some Fox "News" terminology. Crippled by an "entitlement mentality" to use some more. By the inverse of that logic we, because we live north of the border, within the gate or on the space station, were obviously far-sighted, energetic and smart enough to steer the proper course.

What narcissistic balderdash.

Yes, initiative, intelligence and planning are all elements of success. But luck is, too, whether defined as getting a good break someone else did not get or escaping a bad one someone else could not avoid.

Point being, the membrane that divides have from have not is thinner and more permeable than those lords of self-satisfaction who go on Fox preaching the gospel of "up by my bootstraps" would have you believe. Our shared humanity demands a compassion, an ability to give a damn about those have nots, not often evident in such lectures.

Martin Luther King said it thusly: "All life is interrelated." Meaning, what affects some of us will eventually affect us all. We must evolve humane and effective means of managing that inevitable reality.

The fantasy of escaping it behind an impermeable barrier is just that, fantasy. Because the people caught on the outside will always do what Max does, what you or I would do in the same situation: try to find a way in.

The question is not whether they will get in. It's how we will treat them when they do.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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